News & Politics

Nikki Haley Has Built Up a Reputation for Herself at the UN — But Probably Not the One She Wanted

The UN ambassador pays a price for her support of Trump’s policies.

Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem / Flickr

As the world shuddered at the separation of families on the southern U.S. border, Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council. The timing could not have been worse.

The withdrawal coincided with a call by UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein for Washington to end its “unconscionable” policy. President Trump has halted the separation of children from parents, but some 2,000 families are still looking for their children.

Without commenting on the specifics, Haley said: “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.”

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Haley said the reason for withdrawal from the Council was its separate category for Palestinian and Israeli criticism. Many other delegates agree, but say that without an American presence and leadership, few changes are possible.

Former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the Human Rights Council was the “best tool the international community has to address impunity in an imperfect world and to advance many of our international goals.”

He said it was the only UN body to have voted the Russians off its roster. It has produced strong reports on war crimes in Syria, on jails in North Korea, on atrocities in Myanmar and has sent missions to a variety of countries to protect women and girls. Johnson said it was by no means perfect but a “strong tool.”

Ambassador Haley chastised leading human rights groups for not supporting her proposals for reform of the Council in the UN General Assembly. The rights groups said her proposed changes would have led to amendments from Russia, China and other nations to weaken the Council.

Haley Aims Big

Haley performed heavy lifting on sanctions against North Korea, and she has often been far harsher on Russia than Trump has been, notably on chemical weapons strikes in Syria. And she warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could never be a “credible partner” of the United States.

But her advocacy of hard-line positions on the Middle East has not endeared her to colleagues, especially “taking names” of countries who oppose U.S. policy.

In December she vetoed a resolution that criticized President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a decision that was to be resolved in a final peace deal. Israel already controls most of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as their capital. But the U.S. position robbed the Palestinians of hope.

The vote in the Security Council was 14-1. The vote in a follow-up General Assembly resolution was 128 in favor of the resolution, 9 against and 35 abstentions. Haley then threw a party, inviting 65 nations who voted against the resolution as well as the abstainers, such as Canada and Australia.

Asked about the vote, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, in answer to a query from this reporter, told the Council on Foreign Relations that “We felt there was a certain polarization and that the best—the right thing for us was to not pitch in to that polarization.”

Hamas on the Agenda

Then in June, Haley drafted a Security Council resolution condemning the militant group Hamas for its perceived role in inciting violence by Gazans against Israel. Only the United States voted for it. Three countries voted against and 11 others abstained.

On the same day, Haley cast the lone U.S. veto of a Kuwaiti-proposed Security Council resolution for a UN protection zone for Gazans.

Then, a resolution criticizing Israel’s use of force in the 193-member General Assembly was 120 to 8 with 45 abstentions. The rest were absent. Haley, however, did propose an amendment that would have criticized Hamas. It passed 62 to 58 but failed to win the two-thirds majority required.

Still, Haley warned she was “taking names” of those who voted against the United States, implying there would be aid or other repercussions.

When she first arrived at the UN, she made a similar threat: “for those that don’t have our back, we’re taking names, we will make points to respond to that accordingly.” This obviously included allies like Britain, France and Japan, among others.

Haley has consistently defended Israeli actions and backed Trump’s efforts to trim $300 million from aid to Palestinian refugees. She also championed the administration on its criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, separating herself from colleagues.

The Iran controversy is still a subject of discussion among UN members for its role throughout the Middle East and its suppression of dissent at home.

Iran Deal Was “Them” Not “Us”

But the U.S. decision to reject the nuclear deal, partly because it was negotiated by the administration of President Barack Obama, was considered a slap in the face to UN Security Council members, who had endorsed the agreement in a resolution.

Decisions by the 15-member Security Council are binding on all UN members, but most measures in the 193 General Assembly are not.

In September, key foreign ministers met in New York to hear Ambassador Haley say the U.S. was under no obligation to abide by the Iran nuclear agreement because we did not sign it, one minister told this reporter.

This prompted France’s ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, to say in a tweet: “When a country signs an agreement, this commitment doesn’t depend on the variable nature of its government. Otherwise, foreign policies would become impossible.”

On Syria and the Ukraine, Haley led the way in criticizing Russia. She showed photos of the victims of a chemical weapons attack blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially after the United States in April bombed an airport installation.

“Assad did this because he thought he could get away with it. He thought he could get away with it because he knew Russia would have his back. That changed last night,” she said. “The United States took a very measured step. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.” Haley kept up the attack on Russia, but the United States military took no further steps.

Is Haley’s UN Position a Stepping Stone to Higher Office?

Some pundits have speculated that she could be a contender for a vice presidential candidate or Cabinet member. Could Haley use this UN position to build an eventual presidential campaign?

It’s possible. During her two terms as South Carolina governor, her brand of conservatism was pro-trade and pro-life. She made news by taking down Confederate statues without asking anyone for permission.

Haley also has not shied away from the women who said they were sexually abused. She said in a television interview that women who had been sexually assaulted should be heard, even if they are accusing the president. Trump did not criticize her publicly.

Since Haley came to the United Nations, her interactions with the media in New York have taken a back seat to media in Washington, where she announced the United States would leave the UN Human Rights Council. She also first spoke in Washington about Iran’s contribution of illicit ballistic missiles that Yemeni rebels fired at Saudi Arabia.

Yet, she was not invited to Jerusalem for the U.S. embassy opening. Nor was she part of the North Korean negotiations, even though she had done yeoman’s work on both issues. Diplomats speculated she was overlooked rather than slighted.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Evelyn Leopold is a veteran United Nations correspondent, the chair of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.